In the second instalment of his two-part article, Canadian film scholar and regular Senses of Cinema contributor Murray Pomerance continues his thoughts on the trope of the gangster in four films shot in Paris in the 1950s, at the dawn of the nouvelle vague movement: Jules Dassin’s Du rififi chez les hommes (1954), Jacques Becker’s Touchez-pas au grisbi (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de souffle (1960). For the first installment, see Le Goût du crime: Notes on Gangster Style in New-Wave Paris: Part I.
In these films about gangsters of the New Wave or proto-New Wave, other recurrent features stand out and circulate, of which the reliance upon aleatory experience is perhaps the most salient. Bob’s obsession with gambling, Tony le Stéphanois’ calculating but dangerous reliance on techniques for eluding the dangerous jewellery store alarm system, Max le Menteur’s long and trusting, but unprofitable, friendship with Riton, who has clearly tormented him with his incompetence and dependence, and Michel Poiccard’s racing around haphazardly to avoid the eye of the law in a city where, according to him, “You can never find anybody” all demonstrate the importance of contingency, spontaneous inspiration, strangeness, and randomness in human affairs. Poiccard marches down the Champs-Élysées at one point with his eyes glued to a newspaper, following a cop who is following his girlfriend Patricia; he passes hordes of policemen all standing around attentively because a motorcade is passing by, yet in this dense crowd of cops no one makes him out.1 Bob le Flambeur expects to be gambling at Deauville in order to plant himself as an inside man for the heist job; it isn’t part of his plan that he should be a big winner, or that the spectacular coup should be his fate on this, of all possible nights.
Fortuitousness is particularly evident in Bob le Flambeur. Bob actually dramatises fatefulness and unpredictability through his addiction to gambling. In virtually every scene, he wanders in a crowd of like individuals – poker players, small time betters, rich gamblers – perpetually stopping to engage himself in a wager or a thought of wagering. For him gambling is like breathing. In a closet of his rather sumptuous, if also unfurnished, apartment he keeps a slot machine that he feeds each time he comes home. It is a reflex gesture, a habit of which he is only marginally conscious. To argue that games of chance play a central role in French gangster films is to focus on a form of organised activity that social theorist Roger Caillois considers fundamental in most societies, alea. Alea tends to contradict – and in many ways compensate for the deficiencies of – another organisational form, competition by merit or strength, or agon. While “both as a matter of principle and institutionally, modern society tends to enlarge the domain of regulated competition, or merit, at the expense of birth and inheritance, or chance, an evolution which is reasonable, just, and favourable to the most capable,” as Caillois puts it in his Men, Play and Games, nevertheless it is also true that:
Everyone old enough to reflect upon the situation readily understands that it is too late and that the die is cast. Each man is conditioned by environment. He may perhaps ameliorate conditions through merit, but he cannot transcend them. He is unable to radically change his station in life. From this arises the nostalgia for crossroads, for immediate solutions offering the possibility of unexpected success. […] Chance is courted because hard work and personal qualifications are powerless to bring such success about.2
The function of chance in general, and gambling specifically, is to help people “tolerate competition that is unfair or too rugged”, although the illusory expectation that anyone can win “encourages the lowly to be more tolerant of a mediocre status that they have no practical means of ever improving. Extraordinary luck – a miracle – would be needed. It is the function of alea to always hold out hope of such a miracle.”3
To gamble, writes Caillois, is “to renounce work, patience, and thrift in favour of a sudden lucky stroke of fortune which will bring one what a life of exhausting labour and privation has not.”4 In Grisbi, Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Breathless, this “sudden lucky stroke” has become, if a sordid one, a plain and rational calculation against the odds, a way of seeing the world from a point of view that is not only discontented with its lot now but, regardless of its visual acuteness, discerns no legal pathway toward contentment. Precisely in rejecting the bourgeois pieties of work, patience, and thrift do our gamblers gain the force of existential heroes, outsiders who operate according to rules that have not yet been subsumed under state-operated competition. Indeed, in the French gangster film typically, the alignment between the gambler-protagonist and his alter ego in the police force is grounded precisely in that one of them has forsaken and persists in forsaking, while the other obediently adopts, the bureaucratic engagement and commitment that is requisite in mass society when the state wishes to pit men against one another rationally for the division of limited reward. The heroes in these films do not merely commit what are called crimes, or merely stand outside what is called the law (as American gangsters, typically committed to violence, contemptuously do). They exemplify a thoroughly cohesive and yet contradictory social organisation, representing the men Caillois describes who, “being conscious of their inferiority, […] do not trust in exact, impartial, and rational comparisons.”5 The police, meanwhile, dedicate themselves to counterbalancing the effects of inheritance, which is random, and which “continues to weigh upon everybody like a mortgage that cannot be paid off.”6
It is profound, I think, that Melville ends his film, and Bob le Flambeur’s particular story, on a note of ambiguity. He leaves Bob trapped in the back seat of a cop car driving away from the early-morning street outside the Deauville casino. In the trunk are his perfectly stacked towers of legitimately won money. With his chum, the police inspector, he is arguing about how his sentence might get reduced if he finds a good enough lawyer. But then he says, showing an ironic smile, “With a really top lawyer I might sue for damages.” The joke is that Bob is now legitimately rich enough to hire exactly such an advocate. And better, for Bob’s spirit (Melville’s true subject): even if he had to be legitimately successful in order to launch it, such a lawsuit would be only another gamble, something a man like him would look forward to with pleasure. A gamble, too, that would ultimately add to the casino’s untold profits, since, from the perspective of a business of that sort, the occasional crowning of a winner is perfect bait for seducing the unrewarded wagers of the multitude. How urgent can it be for the bourgeois order to dissipate agencies of chance in the face of the money the country takes in legally by letting alea flower? In 1955 (the year Bob le Flambeur was shot), reports Caillois, the French spent 115 billion anciens francs on state-controlled gambling alone.
Another repeating characteristic of the French gangster – that is to say, another characteristic of gangsterism that is typified more clearly and with more pronunciation in French films than in American ones, even American heist masterpieces – is professionalism: professionalism of not merely technique (as in access to equipment, specialist collaborators, means of masquerade) but also attitude. The professional is a worker, a man on a job; his romantic dreams of success are held at bay by his patient attention to small difficulties. And, however solitary his movements and activities, the heister is shown to be a member of an underground cadre, a community of thieves, the citizens of which hold specific competencies and talents and can be directed toward a job by promises of the same kinds of reward, and depreciations of the same kind of adverse contingency, that would move the consideration of legal workers. Lang’s M (1931) is of course a text on the moral strictures and etiquettes of such a community of thieves. Further, operatives in these French heist films are ordinary in their laboriousness and concentration. Only as recently as 2007, with Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen, did an American filmmaker develop allusion, by means of a dice factory, to such a community of ordinary workers in criminal collaboration, neither stars nor personalities (such as we find in Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes ) – but even Soderbergh’s dice manufacturers substitute panache and enthusiasm for the mundane attentiveness and devotion we see ongoingly in Rififi. Members of the thieving community have their own standards of honour – always depicted as legitimate and often, in the films I am discussing, rationalised through elaborate set-ups that seem to have little meaning until late in the film, when we discover that they reveal the moral implications of a criminal’s involvement in an operation and thus constitute the moral ante that his associates must carry forward in the action. In Rififi, strongman Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner) has a tight family life, description of which seems at first to cloud the heist action; but later, when his child is held captive and Jo is killed, the honour among compatriots forces Tony to acknowledge the centrality of that family life in his relation to Jo and to put his own life on the line to get the child back to its now widowed mother. In Bob le Flambeur, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy) is the young Romeo whose sexual attraction for Anne the street wanderer (Isabelle Corey) seems nothing but a fillip of decoration to emphasise the immaturity of his character. That attraction becomes the pivot of the plot, however, when Anne goes to bed with someone else and reveals Paulo’s pillow confessions. Bob is morally outraged by her, and his greatest demonstration of emotion in the film comes when he slaps her for her callous sloppiness. Then he sees to it that she gets the key to his apartment – it being clear Paulo won’t want her around anymore.
Furthermore, the moral commitment to professionalism shared by the men in these films makes for relationships in which they are direct and businesslike, but also respectful and caring of one another’s skills: in Bob le Flambeur there is an elaborate scene where a safe expert demonstrates his skills to his co-workers and in Rififi one where Tony tests out ways of disabling the sonic alarm. As they work together, there is clearly demonstrated courtesy and choreography, precisely as in the western films of Anthony Mann that were the rage of Paris in the mid-1950s and inspired André Bazin (the dominant critical voice at the time). Men such as Bob, Max, and Tony – older by a generation than Michel and Paulo – take time to patiently regard one another, read one another’s expressions, attend to one another’s professional actions in detail, and act gracefully with one another (all of these qualities are echoed to some degree in Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 but rationalised by viewers as typical Rat Pack chuminess). We see such grace in Rififi, as the men observe the Italian’s clever technique of drilling into the safe; in Grisbi, with Max’s sentimental concern for Riton; in Bob le Flambeur, in Bob’s respect for his young compadre Paulo, or for the dignity of his enemy/chum Ledru (Guy Decomble). This Ledru is a recognised contributor to the modus vivendi that, in her studies of the organization of thieving, Mary McIntosh sees as a regular feature of the relationship between criminals and police, a relationship maintained so that “overt conflict is at a minimum.”7 The French gangster, for all his commitment to fortuitousness and disregard for bourgeois propriety, had a fine upbringing, knows his manners, and behaves – one way or another – like a good boy. He lives, as McIntosh notes, “scattered about in the same districts as the rest of the population”, and in the French gangster film we see that he behaves with at least as much circumspection in public as do non-criminals, with whom he must socialise regularly. He is an admirable citizen.
The French gangster of the 1950s and early 1960s has a fondness for, indeed obsession with, American culture. This certainly stems in part from the film scene in Paris in the 1950s, with the principal writers for Positif and Cahiers du cinéma enchanted with American film, and the filmmakers of these gangster pics circulating in this convivial scene. Cahiers, for example, devoted considerable space to lengthy interviews with Jules Dassin and Jacques Becker, had Godard on its staff, and turned a notably beneficent eye toward the films of Melville, at the same time demonstrating its profound regard for the work of Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and other exciting filmmakers working in the United States. David Sterritt notes that “the eyes of Godard and his colleagues were […] fixed on the United States, thanks to their ongoing fascination with Hollywood and American popular culture” – a popular culture that included the Evergreen Review, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the collages of Robert Rauschenberg just as much as Pickup on South Street (1953), Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955), and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.8 The gangster frequently either drives or flirts with an American car, or uses his French car as if he wished it were American – a car with the roof down, or one that gracefully swoops around circles, a car he owns or a car he has stolen, a car he seems not at all to care about (because it flowed out of car culture, where there are innumerable replacements waiting), quite as though it is an extension of his own body which he has the liberty to forget, a car that seems to have a fatefulness at once existentially French and technologically American. In Breathless, Michel’s story “can be traced through the cars he steals, uses, and abandons in the naïve belief that freedom is a matter of physical transit,” writes Sterritt.9 We could add that in Breathless the gangster’s love affair with America is embodied through companionship with a perfectly American girl, whose Americanised pronunciation of French tinkles on the sound track like bells and who often (Sterritt reminds us) has as much trouble comprehending Michel’s jargon as we do. Michel has similar (and comically charming) trouble pronouncing Cadillac El Dorado in the American style, as, having purloined one, he chauffeurs Patricia around town. Godard told Jonathan Cott that he photographed Breathless in the style of Life magazine, in whose pages photojournalists like Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Eugene Smith were regularly displaying a quintessentially frank view of American life.10 Michel is fascinated by Bogart – “Bogart in a generic movie-star pose”11 – that hallmark of the American personality; it is like Bogie that Michel styles himself, yet he moves like Jerry Lewis. Bob le Flambeur’s birthright is eternal hope, eternal conviction that the big win is around the corner. “Luck, be a lady tonight!” Sky Masterson had sung between November 24, 1950 and November 28, 1953 in Guys and Dolls, one of the most American of American Broadway shows, and at the casino in Deauville, as Melville’s voice informs us in the narration, “Lady Luck, his old mistress, made him forget why he was there.”
More than all this, there is an American impulse in the relentless movement of the gangster protagonist to clear his past, win his fortune, establish his credentials among the successful, make it here and then make it anywhere. If in the end the gangster turns out to be a loser, this status almost always fails to destroy him but merely drops him back into his European patrimony, a busy circus from which he gave signs of extricating himself, in a voyage upward, only until fate turned the cards. In Grisbi, Max survives all his near victimisations only to find the loot and the car that holds it exploding in flames (a trope that Lewis Milestone would revivify with Ocean’s 11). In Breathless, it is true, the carjacker and cop-killer Michel, for all his charm, is sold out by the American girl and shot dead in the street, but it is a death he saw coming, having realised that his love wasn’t reciprocated – or that the whole thing is now, and always was, only a game. “C’est vraiment dégueulasse,” he sighs, covering his own eyes to end the film.
In Bob, regardless of how optimistic we may feel at the end, the casino job is thwarted and Bob’s closely knit crew has been broken up. He does not say the whole thing is dégueulasse – disgusting – but we certainly feel it is, having seen the heist job as a pathway to some glorious freedom, some new social design, that never arrived. The meticulous heist in Rififi is a complete botch, with everyone losing his life in the end (Kubrick would reflect this in The Killing , even as the film’s despondency and fruitlessness of action were anticipated in John Huston’s highly charged The Asphalt Jungle 12). Writing about the influence of the série noire gangster novels on post-war French film, Ginette Vincendeau observes that the crime literature of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain “developed spectacularly after the war” and was endorsed by many French film-makers, notably including Melville. “Two key books” in the genre were Albert Simonin’s Touchez pas au grisbi and Auguste le Breton’s Du rififi chez les hommes.13 The French gangster pic of the new wave era, then, used a sensibility and technique derived locally, on the streets of France, to energise a take-off from American popular literature that recounted the existential, “beat” reality of modern life. As to that evocative, potent reality, Sterritt quotes Antonin Artaud:
Cinema creates situations that arise from the mere collision of objects, forms, repulsions, attractions. It does not detach itself from life but rediscovers the original order of things. […] A cinema which is studded with dreams, and which gives you the physical sensation of pure life, finds its triumph in the most excessive form of humor. A certain excitement of objects, forms, and expressions can only be translated into the convulsions and surprises of a reality that seems to destroy itself with an irony in which you can hear a scream from the extremities of the mind.14
The New-Wave technique took the hard-boiled quality of the American writers a step further by focusing on loyalty and betrayal in a more intrinsically civil, less symbolic way – without forehanded knowledge or interpretation, through the eyes of a child, as it were – and through the skilled contribution of technicians like cinematographer Henri Decaë, who “used faster film stock than usual” and “was happy to use the poor conditions as a spur to innovation.”15 Melville, further, is “absolutely not a narrator”, continues Goute; the film is a depiction of a world, a circling through action, an approximation to personality and despair – all far more promising and more enchanting – and more “beat” – than a mere story can be. Young Paulo asks a colleague at one point if it isn’t true that Bob picked up his style from American gangsters, and he is answered, if somewhat impetuously, that actually it was the other way around: the Americans imitated Bob.
Gangsters in French movies also smoke. Indeed, they smoke so profoundly and so incessantly that the cigarette ceases to be a prop and becomes a part of the personality. Michel Poiccard lights one cigarette from another, and is almost never without a lit cigarette in his mouth; nor does he remove it when he speaks. Bob le Flambeur is a methodical and parsimonious man, who smokes only the ends of cigarettes, carrying a lit one in his hand or his lips at all times. The gangster’s mouth is more piously devoted to smoking than it is to speaking, or manages smoking and speaking at the same time, a casual efficiency. The smoking of the gangster matches his taciturnity, his abrupt and curt use of jargon, his tendency to employ the studious gaze. In this particular respect, and bizarrely, the French screen gangster displays an affinity for the bourgeois sensibility he otherwise subverts. Writing of tobacco and coffee, Wolfgang Schivelbusch informs us that:
Tobacco calms, coffee stimulates. Normally one would assume that these contradictory qualities cancel each other. Yet the opposite is true: they complement each other. The common goal both were used to achieve was the reorientation of the human organism to the primacy of mental labor. The brain is the part of the human body of greatest concern to bourgeois civilization. […] Coffee functioned positively, arousing and nourishing the brain. Tobacco functioned negatively, calming the rest of the body – that is, reducing its motoricity to a minimum—as was necessary and desirable for mental, i.e., sedentary activity.16
Max, Tony, Michel, and Bob thus excite and charge our modern taste precisely because they represent triumphs of the bourgeois personality at war with itself, looking urgently to escape the everyday while rigorously attending to the social functions of city life. There is a diffuse and illuminating presence of cigarette smoke in another, pioneering gangster film that is notably un-French, Lang’s M, a depiction in which smoke, often this time out of the mouths of legal agents, assumes the form of a character itself.17
France was a burgeoning industrialised nation when these films were made, and poverty was rampant. Leftist opinion was to be found in all strata of society (as had been evident from the days of the Commune), and bourgeois values were everywhere examined, critiqued, doubted, even by the bourgeoisie. On French movie screens, M. Hulot typified the solitary simple man confounded and debilitated in the face of modernity’s magnificently inefficient social infrastructure. The search for money was the national post-war adventure, not simply the resolution of psychoneurosis, of revenge, or of love. As much as to the fabular world of the screen, violence belonged to the remote, cloistered world of colonial warfare where, in Cambodia, in Egypt, and in Algeria, French interests were threatened. Post-war America, on the contrary, was occupying the world stage, touting itself as a consumer utopia. While the Americans were busy inventing and showing off Howard Johnson’s, McDonald’s, Sara Lee cheesecake, Kellogg’s cereals, colour television, and high-speed black-and-white film, obsessing about Disneyland, and beginning to warn publicly against cigarette smoke, the French stuck habitually to their neighbourhoods, sipping their café noir, chomping baguettes, dutifully paying the barman to use the telephone, and smoking incessantly to produce the private clouds that could block out the troubling world. If Sartre and De Beauvoir were on the minds of those who loved to think their way out of mundanity, the racing results were the stuff of real philosophy for the boue. It is not hard, therefore, to grasp the popularity in France of films about gamblers and thieves, who, loving America fatefully (in a way that only Frenchmen could), still strove in the grimy precincts of the everyday to keep their hair neat, their suits pressed, their lucky coins handy, and their eyes and thoughts continually fixed on the possibility of a luckier tomorrow.
- A motorcade with Charles de Gaulle, who is elided in the editing. Filmmaking is its own surveillance, its own exclusionary practice, its own isolation, Godard may be telling us: even the Président de la République can be as un-made as Michel! ↩
- Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 114. ↩
- Ibid, p. 115. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 112. ↩
- Mary McIntosh, “Changes in the Organization of Thieving,” in Stanley Cohen (ed.), Images of Deviance (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 98-133, here p. 114. ↩
- David Sterritt, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 44. See also Antoine de Baecque, La Cinéphilie: invention d’un regard, 1950-1964 (Paris: Fayard, 2003). ↩
- Ibid., p. 48. ↩
- Jonathan Cott, “Godard: Born-Again Filmmaker,” in David Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard Interviews, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), pp. 91-99, here p. 98. ↩
- Sterritt, Films, op. cit., p. 57. ↩
- See Murray Pomerance, “A Passing Node: The Asphalt Jungle,” in Douglas McFarland and Wesley King, eds., John Huston as Adaptor (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017), pp. 23-42.” ↩
- Ginette Vincendeau, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris (London: BFI, 2003). ↩
- David Sterritt, Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility (Carbondale.: Southern Illinois University Press), p. 45). ↩
- Vincendeau, Melville, op. cit., p. 105). The magnificently gritty, supply entrancing vision of Montmartre that we see in Bob le Flambeur is the epitome of what had only been sketched roughly in such American works as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1944), an image that, as Jean-Yves Goute wrote in Cahiers du cinéma, was “precise without being dry, beautiful without being refined, seductive without being sleazy.”[16. Jean-Yves Goute, “Saluer Melville?” Cahiers du cinéma 63 (October 1956): 51. ↩
- Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 110. ↩
- For more on this, see Murray Pomerance, “The Smoke and the Knife,” in The Horse Who Drank the Sky (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 86-109. ↩